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Facing a Sputnik moment?

November 29th, 2010 · 3 Comments

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu just finished a speech at the National Press Club entitled: Is the Energy Race our new “Sputnik” moment?

Chu outlined ways in which the United States either has already ceded or is ceding leadership when it comes to clean energy — in technology, manufacturing, and deployment.

Secretary Chu seeks to lay out a call to arms, as it may be, for Americans (and, more importantly, the political elite) to recognize that we either decide to invest for the long term in clean energy innovation or we risk abandoning future prosperity to others.

Some of Secretary Chu’s key points

Dr. Chu’s key point is that the United States must undertake a “mobilization of America’s innovation machine” along the lines of what occurred after Sputnik flew overhead “so that we can compete in the global race for jobs of the future.”

Secretary Chu has long focused on the power of American innovation and today was no exception.

“When it comes to innovation, Americans don’t take a back seat to anyone – and we certainly won’t start now. From wind power to nuclear reactors to high speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead. Given that challenge, and given the enormous economic opportunities in clean energy, it’s time for America to do what we do best: innovate. As President Obama has said, we should not, cannot, and will not play for second place.”

The Red menace races ahead

While speaking to some of the efforts that Stimulus money are funding, with promise for real breakthroughs, Secretary Chu gave examples where America is far from the global clean energy leader with a particular focus on China:

1. High Voltage Transmission. China has deployed the world’s first Ultra High Voltage AC and DC lines – including one capable of delivering 6.4 gigawatts to Shanghai from a hydroelectric plant nearly 1300 miles away in southwestern China. These lines are more efficient and carry much more power over longer distances than those in the United States.
2. High Speed Rail. In the span of six years, China has gone from importing this technology to exporting it, with the world’s fastest train and the world’s largest high speed rail network, which will become larger than the rest of the world combined by the end of the decade. Some short distance plane routes have already been cancelled, and train travel from Beijing to Shanghai (roughly equivalent to New York to Chicago) has been cut from 11 hours to 4 hours.
3. Advanced Coal Technologies. China is rapidly deploying supercritical and ultra-supercritical coal combustion plants, which have fewer emissions and are more efficient than conventional coal plants because they burn coal at much higher temperatures and pressures. Last month, Secretary Chu toured an ultra-supercritical plant in Shanghai which claims to be 45 to 48 percent efficient. The most efficient U.S. plants are about 40 percent efficient. China is also moving quickly to design and deploy technologies for Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plants as well as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).
4. Nuclear Power. China has more than 30 nuclear power plants under construction, more than any other country in the world, and is actively researching fourth generation nuclear power technologies.
5. Alternative Energy Vehicles. China has developed a draft plan to invest $17 billion in central government funds in fuel economy, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric and fuel cell vehicles, with the goal of producing 5 million new energy vehicles and 15 million fuel-efficient conventional vehicles by 2020.
6. Renewable Energy. China is installing wind power at a faster rate than any nation in the world, and manufactures 40 percent of the world’s solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. It is home to three of the world’s top ten wind turbine manufacturers and five of the top ten silicon based PV manufacturers in the world.
7. Supercomputing. Last month, the Tianhe-1A, developed by China’s National University of Defense Technology, became the world’s fastest supercomputer. While the United States – and the Department of Energy in particular – still has unrivalled expertise in the useful application of high performance computers to advance scientific research and develop technology, America must continue to improve the speed and capacity of our advanced supercomputers.

A question as to whether the ‘red baiting’ move from the USSR to PRC will capture Americans’ attention.

This leads me to a question …

A Sputnik moment?

While I have tremendous (TREMENDOUS) respect for Secretary Chu and wish that his vision were shared by my fellow Americans, the simple fact seems to be that while America’s losing ground in the clean-energy revolution should be a ‘Sputnik’ moment to spark a national movement to something greater, the national media and the national will simply don’t seem to be in the same zone as what occurred as Americans looked overhead in fear at a beeping little piece of metal. Fear how Sputnik symbolically represented the threat of Soviet intercontinental missiles. A tiny little ball that provided a very tangible example of an existential threat. A tiny little ball that, literally in some cases, sent people into bomb shelters.

European seizure of the leadership of wind turbine from what was once a U.S. leadership just doesn’t seem to move most Americans into a state of frenzied passion.

Chinese subsidization of solar pv panels undercutting US manufacturers doesn’t seem to send my fellow citizens into their garages with a determination to regain America’s leadership position nor have Americans determined to pay more to assure that (if they do it) their electricity comes from American rather than PRC solar panels.

Thus, a question as to whether the “Sputnik” analogy works on a fundamental level perplexed me. I had a chance to ask Secretary Chu specifically about this in a post National Press Club speech blogger’s press conference.

There are ways in which the analogy works and ways, naturally, where it doesn’t …

President Eisenhower, in his speech, didn’t talk about doubling investment in missiles but spoke to the importance of developing engineers and investing in science.

There was a period where we knew we were behind and we knew it.

But, the response was a long term one.

Here was a five-star general who said that we shouldn’t respond

What are the parallels?

We had a technological lead but leads can be tenuous. They can be lost. But, they can be recaptured.

We had the lead in airplanes and lost it, but now we are back in the game.

Ultimately, it will be driven by the private sector, not by government spending.

What is China doing? They are not spending government funds on everything but are trying to get business to do the right thing. If you look at it, tax incentives and loans, it looks like it comes out of an American playbook with a great exception. Their policies are for the long term which is very important for private sector investment.

Better to have long term policies than short-term lavish policies that don’t stay around.

Sputnik/Space program was a public sector thing. The education thing was a public-private. …

The most important thing is to understand that this is a long-term issue …

The energy / climate challenge thing is much deeper. … It is a multi-trillion dollar market. It is a big thing. This is what all the other countries have decided we need to be doing. We have to get moving.

Secretary Chu’s comments, beyond just the question of whether this is the right analogy, merit serious focus. He focused on innovation in the energy sector as a path toward future prosperity — and something that we risk letting slip through our fingers.

Secretary Chu opened the blogger call with the following:

The National Press Club is a tremendous venue but this is a message that I need to keep repeating.

Let uss hope that some of those journalists listened to the Secretary and will do some of that repeating themselves.


To be clear, Secretary Chu’s focus on “innovation” can be a bit troubling. While we certainly need “innovation” and development of tomorrow’s technologies, the seizing of the fruit on the ground and the low-hanging fruit is far more critical to do with massive investment today. Secretary Chu does recognize that and does speak to that (see his China examples, for example re deployment of high speed rail) but the “Sputnik moment” focus turns to developing future technologies. We need serious commitment to deploy, staring with yesterday, clean energy technologies, energy efficiency, smart planning, better regulations and standards, paths to reduce our waste of resources (water, soil, people, etc …) with a dedicated commitment to innovation to develop the technologies and approaches that we will be deploying tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.

Posts on Chu’s “Sputnik Moment” speech include:

NOTE: Other Steve Chu posts include:

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Tags: department of energy · Energy · Secretary of Energy Steven Chu

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